But before Shuffling can commence this weekend, there’s another one to get out of the way, and a quite significant one; US alt-rock psych/ noise rabble turned wide-eyed pioneering Americana dreamers Mercury Rev, back on these shores after a relatively short break of less than 2 years. More intriguingly, this time they’re accompanied by The Royal Northern Sinfonia, a Gateshead-based chamber orchestra, to provide an extra “live” dimension to the Rev’s widescreen and epic sound sculptures. The missing dimension, perhaps? Originally scheduled for The Colston Hall as well, where the ornate surroundings of the main hall and its’ favourable acoustics would augment the overall experience, Beef and I acted quickly and secured rear stalls tix for an enticing and intriguing event, which initially I also believed would be a run-through of their defining epic 1998 work “Deserters Songs” – it wasn’t, so not sure why I got that impression, but still…
So a couple of bumps in the road were due, the first being that the gig was moved to the O2 Academy at late notice, due to some debris having fallen from the Colston Hall ceiling. A familiar venue, this, but perhaps one less suitable for this particular performance? We nonetheless headed down and parked unimpeded on Trenchard level 8, hitting the venue at 10 to 8. Very poorly attended early doors, and with support Charlie Coxedge midway through his set. Seemingly in keeping with recent Rev supports, he was absolute dreck, playing one note riffs then feeding them through tape loop overlays. I bloody hate that at the best of times, but this was worse, as his “material” was unstructured, utterly pointless guitar noodling. Sorry mate, it’s not “haunting” or “ethereal”, it just sounded like 15 minutes of tuning up. Charlie was clearly a competent musician, but tonight he was just wasting his – and the audiences – time.
Anyway, from the ridiculous to the utterly sublime, as the lights darkened and the c. 20 piece Sinfonia Orchestra took the slightly cramped stage just before 8.30, playing a string-led piece to set a mournful, elegiac mood, then Mercury Rev sloped quietly onstage, almost respectfully, to the refrain from “The Dark Is Rising”, thereafter easing into a warm and evocative opener “Central Park”. The raffish, 19th Century gentleman rogue Jonathan Donahue, resplendent in snowy stubble, Dickensian cap and necktie, then introduced the orchestra, then the band and finally, “the grand vizier of all things ethereal, Simon Raymonde!” In fact, the former Cocteau Twin and Bella Union boss (who, with cap and gaudy jacket in place, I thought resembled Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen!) was as integral to tonight’s show as the orchestra and the Rev themselves, not only with his shimmering guitar work, but also with stories of his father, the former composer and actor Ivor Raymonde, who’d apparently not only been responsible for the string arrangements on some Walker Brothers hits (which elicited a sharp intake of breath from this Scott Walker devotee!), but also had a walk-on part on “Hancock’s Half Hour”!
Nonetheless, the music was the key element of the performance, as ever for me, and despite some uneven and occasionally frankly baffling song selections, the orchestral treatment really provided the hoped-for extra elements to the material. “Tonite It Shows” was gorgeous and dramatic in equal measure, the opening section to “Endlessly” was beautiful, the strings and voice only arrangement giving it a gossamer delicacy, and “Holes” (which also featured guest guitarist Adrian Utley from Portishead) was magnificent, huge and transcendent, and almost my highlight of the night. These almost made up for a throwaway “I Wish I Never Loved You”, an Ivor Raymonde-composed 60’s Helen Shapiro number sung tonight by Holly Macve (who we’d established last time out with the Rev that I’m not a fan of), and a Sinfonia-free, VU-esque droney and somewhat inexplicable cover of The Flaming Lips early (i.e. before they got good) “There You Are”
However, once again Donahue excelled; remarking, “the urge to conduct is overwhelming!” but then admitting, “I didn’t know that the waving arms had some musical meaning!” he was a voluble presence throughout, chatty and contented, joining in the audience applause for each number, and of course augmenting them perfectly with his haunting, eerie soprano voice. The bouncy refrain into the crescendo choral structure of “Opus 40” then led into an astonishing reading of “When You Wish Upon A Star”, which prompted me to film a segment on my phone for my Disney fan daughter. Donahue joked afterwards, “I could see it in your eyes – are you really going there? But we’re not going there, we’ve been there all along!” also making the point that their “Big Music” always required, even deserved an orchestral arrangement, commenting “[Grasshopper and I] didn’t want Sid Vicious on bass in the band – we were looking forward to an oboe!” Inevitably, therefore, the night closed out with “The Dark Is Rising”, Mercury Rev’s high watermark and their one song most in need of an orchestral accompaniment. Stark and lovely, the refrains swooped like swarms of delicate butterflies, before again building to the almost palpable final crescendo, Donahue at this point barging the Sinfonia conductor out of the way to conduct the orchestra with a blue toy lightsabre. This was a quite magnificent way to end an overall very worthy and, despite some imperfections, thoroughly enjoyable performance.
Had a quick chat with a fellow punter, who’d previously commented on my blog, whilst waiting for a set-list; then the final bump in the road, as we were ushered away by a steward who’d been told no lists were being handed out tonight. Bah! I had to content myself with a pic of the sound guy’s list, who again wouldn’t part with it (personal notes? I call bullshit, me… grrrr). Whatever, this was still another fine – and early – night out with the Rev; still (occasionally) scraping the heavens after all these years!